We are in the heartland, bleeding out. We are seeds sprouted in torn lands. How did we come so far, cover so much distance? Habibti, we call out to each other, azizam. We say to one another, you are the source of my light. The goats were still baaing when we left, kicking against the rocks on the crest of the mountains, their beards wispy in the wind. There was the salt of the sea, the trembling line of heat. There was the hollow shaft of the gun barrel and the wayward man holding it. There were downcast mothers. There was the shell-shocked child with his mouth still smelling of suckled milk.
Long ago was long ago, we say looping our arms around each other. We carry our blood in glass jars. We are headed to a bath house to soak our limbs. Inside, wall mirrors redouble the space. Everything is immense. We set our jars on the counter at the front desk. There are clots in our blood. They are beautiful; they catch the light coming through the window behind the counter and glide around our jars effortlessly, their borders luminous and pink. The girl at the counter hands us towels. She hands us slippers. She is polite. She is from the heartland. She does not see our blood, even though it is everywhere, on the walls and mirrors, staining them momentarily. She has not worn black sheets, or wailed at the burial ground, or been swathed in the silver light of grief.
We are the lucky ones because we have landed in the palm of the enemy. We eat from the dish of death. This is survival, we sing. This is the world unfenced. We force our minds to catch up. Look, we say to each other, the world is without barriers, we are free. There is worse, we say. There are those who carry their brains, their livers, their teeth. We sigh as we descend the stairs. We hold our blood against the surface of our freshly pressed towels.
We are glad to go into the subterranean baths where the waters flow free. We can soak our knees and our elbows. We can pamper our broken bodies. There are other immigrants. We greet each other. They, too, are tracing a vein back to its source, searching for unbroken remains. There is a Russian wearing a woolen cap. As soon as she sees us, she says, you are bleeding. We are eager to show our scars. We lift our jars. She peers at our clots. She says, I see, then disappears down a hallway and through a door.
We follow her into the sauna. She is naked on her towel, pink as a grapefruit, beating herself with leaves. Where is the henna? We ask. Where is the marble stone, the mint tea? These, she says, are oak leaves. She slaps her legs with the branches, she lifts them over her shoulder and whips her back. Vapor rises from her chest. That must be her heart burping out its grief. She tells us to stand in line with our backs turned toward her. We hold our blood against our chests. She taps our backs. No more negative energy, she says. She flicks our skin with the leaves. In the sauna there are also Mexican women. They keep telling us, go to the bar, order a salad to share, they are big. We look at one another. Do we look grey? Bloodless, boneless? Like heaps of flesh with eyes peering out from beneath heavy lids? We are the survivors, we declare. We thread our voices together, then leave.
We retreat to the pools to soak our bodies. We peer at the hollows between our legs. We name all the things that could enter: gun shafts, canes, the metal tips of boots. Wouldn’t it be great to seal our gaps, to grow fleshy protrusions? Think of all the power, we say, then remember that our brothers are dead. We think of the law of relativity. We soak our jars in the water. We caress them. We say to our blood, you are my amulet, my stone, my talisman. We tap our jars on the head. In a calm susurrus, we say, you are my olive tree, my cypress, my tree of magnolias.
The Russian and the Mexican women return. They stand over us. The Russian says, there is a Ukrainian woman who works at the local pharmacy who is good at all the W questions. The Mexican women nod their heads in agreement. Who, what, where, when, the Russian insists. There are leaves stuck in the creases of their skin. These women are healthy trees with roots growing upward into the unknown. They peer over us, mouths agape. There is an herb for everything, they say. They have taken their turn being under. They have assimilated the facts. They have inhaled the fumes of history. We are the new wave, young and learning to breathe again. They watch us open our mouths to take in big gulps of air, our lungs seared by the singed smell of history.
Long ago was long ago. We climbed mountains, trekked through ravines. We entered the house of a soothsayer. On the way there we saw different things: patches of fire, kids who beat dogs with sticks because the walls hemming them in were so tall the world was barred from them. We saw piles of garbage. Men with beards pinched our cheeks until our faces split open. There were foreign men, too, who did other things. When we arrived at the house of the soothsayer, we said to her, we think our parents are in the burial grounds. We told her that we could not be certain that they were dead. We said, we are lost, then asked, who is the enemy? Who, what, where, when, she sang. She posed the question to the universe, then sealed her lips. When she finally unsealed her mouth, there was nothing. There was the beginning of the beginning: a thread of stardust left over from the origins of the universe.
The heartland is immense. We see buttons on the walls near the pools, mittens hanging on hooks in the sauna. We say to one another, we can operate the world with these objects. We touch things. Our fingers are raw from overuse, fatigued from trying to point at a moving target. We say, the world is big, it contains all of time. There is foam on the sea of our blood. It is the foam of history. We are the survivors, we say. We press the buttons. We hold our breath. We are worried we have touched the wrong thing and that the building will come crumbling down. But it doesn’t, and we are laughter in the heartland, soaking our broken bodies, chuckling at the raw wounds of the universe.
Photograph © Marion